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Hydrodam Plans Stir Ratanakkiri Unease

Patt Paing has five hectares of land by the Sre Pok river. She has a small wooden house, and she raises pigs. The 55-year-old leads a quiet life here in Village Two, in Ratanakkiri’s Koun Mom district. But over the past three years, life has been more difficult.

That’s because of the floods.

“I don’t have enough rice to eat because of the floods for the past three years,” she told VOA Khmer in an interview last week. “In previous years, I could harvest more than 1,000 buckets or over 10 tons of rice per season.”

The floods were caused by water releases from dams upriver, she said.

“The consecutive floods caused by the dams have left me almost nothing to eat,” she said.

At least five more dams have been planned on the Sre Pok and its sister river, the Sesan, both of which run into the Mekong River. Those dams will follow the 2002 construction of a 720-megawatt dam at Yali Falls on the Sesan in Vietnam.

Villagers, who gathered for an annual celebration of the 3S Rivers Protection Network here last week, say they don’t want more dams, the flooding from which damage livestock and farmland.

“The existing dam in Vietnam has already severely affected our livelihoods, so what will it be like if more dams are to be built on these rivers on the Cambodian side?” asked Meas Samith, a representative of indigenous villagers on the Sre Pok.

“For generations, I have never heard that when a dam is built, an escalator is also set up for fish to travel on,” he said. “When a dam is built, there is no more fish migration.”

Villagers here say the dams and the power they generate are not worth the cost.

“Can the electricity be eaten?” asked Piev Chhin, a 65-year-old fisherman from the Brov ethnic minority. “We live along the river, so if our house gets flooded, what is the use of having electricity?”

“The electricity is of no importance for us,” added Dy Bopi, a 55-year-old farmer in Koun Mom district. “We would rather us batteries or paraffin lamps instead.”

However, officials say that if Cambodia is to grow its economy, it will need more than batteries and lamps. Only about 20 percent of the country’s homes have access to power, and most of those are in the capital. And electricity prices here remain high, while Cambodia purchases electricity from Vietnam and Thailand.

Ratanakirri Governor Pao Hamphan told reporters here last week the proposed dams were not confirmed and that villagers should not worry about them too much at the moment.

“It’s just the information, as no company has come to talk to us about them yet,” he said.

A vice governor of Koun Mom district, however, said the government would proceed with the dams if assessments showed more benefits than costs.

“We don’t build dams to kill people,” he said, addressing a crowd of villagers. “We build them for their benefit.”

If Cambodia does not build dams, other countries will, he said. “How can we alleviate people’s poverty if we just wait and buy electricity from other countries?”

Villagers said last week the government should consider methods other than dams if it needs electricity.

“If they build dams, it’s not certain we would have electricity for use here,” said Nen Sokei, an ethnic Tompuon villager. “And if we do have electricity, we are not sure if we can afford to pay for the power supply.”